• Opinion

Running against a ghost

Can President Barack Obama be re-elected by running against former President George W. Bush? Some Democratsseem to think that's a good part of what he's been doing, and they question the notion.

While repeatedly reminding voters, in a major campaign speech in Cleveland, that "the problems we're facing right now have been more than a decade in the making," Mr. Obama didn't mention his predecessor by name once. The closest he came was reference to "the Bush tax cuts."


Yet every decision he listed as the core of the decline had Bush's fingerprints on it. "We were told," he said, "that huge tax cuts, especially for the wealthiest Americans, would lead to future job growth. We were told that fewer regulations, especially for the financial institutions and corporations, would bring about wide prosperity. We were told that it was OK to put two wars on the nation's credit card. ... So how did this economic theory work out?"

Mr. Obama went on at great length in this vein, essentially rehashing the history of the George W. Bush years, which without much exaggeration constituted the economic mess he inherited in 2009. The problem with the approach politically, however, is that Mr. Obama had laid out most of this lament before the voters in the 2010 midterm congressional elections, and suffered what he later acknowledged was a "shellacking."

Even as he recited repeatedly in the midterm campaign how Mr. Bush and the Republicans in Congress had driven the country "into the ditch" and then refused to help "dig it out," he and his own party took a big hit. They lost control of the House to an aroused GOP leadership and emboldened obstructionism fueled by a host of tea party freshmen.

In all of this, prospective Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had no conspicuous role other than to take up Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's battle cry of making Mr. Obama "a one-term president." Mr. Romney, like most of the other Republican presidential hopefuls, made little mention of the departed "Dubya," like some bad dream that had never happened.

He continues pretty much in the same fashion, but that has not stopped Mr. Obama from suggesting that Mr. Romney this fall would offer essentially a continuation of the Bush policies "that we tried during the last decade ... that the best way to grow the economy is from the top down ... that if we strip down government to national security and a few other basic functions, then the power of businesses to create jobs and prosperity will be unleashed, and that will benefit us all."

The one direct Obama rap against Mr. Romney in the Cleveland speech was the reminder that he had argued during the depth of the economic crisis that "we should let Detroit go bankrupt," a position not even Mr. Bush embraced. Instead, Mr. Obama noted, "we made a bet on American workers and the ingenuity of American companies, and today our auto industry is back on top of the world."

Three separate times during the speech, Mr. Obama insisted his message was not "political spin." It was, however, as some critics accurately noted, a very long restating of his basic arguments from the start of the recession, without using the word "stimulus" that his rivals have so successfully demonized. He called again for rebuilding the nation's physical infrastructure and its knowledge base as imperative not only to provide jobs but to keep America competitive in a tougher world economy.

At times he sounded somewhat defensive, noting Republican ads that "tell you the economy is bad, that I cannot fix it because I think government is always the answer, or because I didn't make a lot of money in the private sector and don't understand it, or because I'm in over my head, or because I think everything and everybody is doing just fine."

But he was on sound ground in reminding voters of the failed policies that made his first term a rescue effort rather than the vehicle for "hope and change" he promised in 2008. Now he needs to go beyond those Bush reveries and bring the fight more to Mr. Romney himself, who remains a sort of mystery man to many wondering voters.

Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is